Thursday, January 07, 2010

Debt: The Silent Killer

financial_suicide A sobering tale by Elie Mystal:

I graduated law school in 2003, owing Harvard University just under $150,000. At the time, I had no idea what starting my professional career $150K in the hole would do to my life. I figured I’d work hard, make money, and I’d pay my loans out of my general non-disposable income funds — kind of like my cable bill.

Seven years, two careers, numerous deferments and defaults, and one global economic meltdown later, I still owe a ton of money. Now, however, I pay it to various debt collection agencies and lawyers. When prospective landlords run a pro forma credit check on my application, they come back looking at me like I’ve been convicted of multiple war crimes. Every raise I’ll ever get will be eaten up by the collection agencies until sweet death allows me one everlasting and satisfying default. And, oh yeah, I don’t even want to practice law anymore — I quit my Biglaw job because, despite the debt, I really wanted to have a job that I enjoyed. So I essentially purchased a $150,000 disposable good. My time working in Biglaw was kind of like a very expensive vacation that I debt financed.

I mention all this because I am the cautionary tale prospective law students never want to think about. I mention all this because it is noble to crush false hope. I mention all this because there are way too many people poised to follow in my financially ruinous steps.

Unfortunately, Elie is not alone.  According to the ABA Journal, nearly one-third of law students owe more than $120,00 in student loans by the time they graduate… and that number is continuing to climb.  Not all of these students will be making a lifelong career in BigLaw which means many of them, like Elie, are most likely heading into financial disaster.

law_salariesConsider this, if 29% of law students graduate with $120,000+ in debt and enter into a profession with median starting salaries of $72,000 (as of 2008), that means a whole lot of people are heading into a whole lot of trouble.  (A lot of people take on the debt not knowing where they will end up in the salary distribution.)  And that’s not even factoring in the terrible shape the legal sector is in now thanks to current economic conditions.  What I find particularly troubling is that so few within the legal profession or legal academy seem to be taking steps to warn prospective law students about the financial realities they are likely to face.

Massive debt isn’t fun.  Law school isn’t fun.  And from what I hear from many practicing attorneys, working at a large law firm isn’t much fun either. 

As I’ve said numerous times before, pick a decent-paying undergraduate major if you want to maximize your chances for a good financial return on your education.  Taking on a small amount of debt used to enable your education toward a well-paying job and career satisfaction may not be a bad financial decision.  But taking on six-figure debt with uncertain income prospects afterward can quickly turn into financial suicide.

See my previous post:  Debt Is Slavery

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